Monday, August 29, 2011

Honor Bound by Myla Jackson

TITLE: Honor Bound
AUTHOR: Myla Jackson
PUBLISHER: Samhain
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 23k)
GENRE: Historical erotic romance
COST: $3.50

Escaping the Indian tribe that held her captive, Honor stumbles across two miners pleasuring each other in a stream. She’s aroused by what they’re doing, but recognizes an opportunity when she sees one. She goes to their cabin while they’re washing, intent on stealing what is necessary to survive, but their early return turns her plans on their head, especially when the men don’t seem eager to let her go…

On Mondays, I review either gay or ménage stories, which is why I pulled this one out of the stack to read next. However, while the publisher might think ménage scenes qualifies it as such, this romance definitely has a het HEA. I decided to review it anyway, if only to warn others who might be misled by the publisher’s labels, too.

Honor is running away from the Indian who has been holding her captive for nearly six weeks. A parson’s widow, she’d been on her way to San Francisco to start her life over when they were ambushed. Everybody else was left for dead, while she was secured as some kind of trophy wife. She’s tired of being manipulated and used by men, and determined to live life as she wants. She comes across two miners in a stream, Zach and Jake, who are in the midst of pleasuring each other. Rather than be appalled by what she’s witnessing, she becomes aroused, and gets herself off before realizing she can use this chance to steal supplies to help her escape. Her attempts are foiled when Zach and Jake return early, however, and Zach ties her up, unsure of what to do with her next.

You can figure out what happens from there. Lots of sex. Both men are desperate for a woman, though they have finally admitted to being attracted to each other, too. The three of them fall into bed together fairly easily, with Zach quickly becoming possessive of Honor. But while the publisher calls this a ménage, it is only in the sense that there are threesomes involved. The ending is all about Zach and Honor devoting themselves to each other, with the agreement that if she wants Jake to play with them, he can. Zach makes it very clear that she is his, though, and seems to only agree to the threesomes so he can touch Jake, not to share Honor. In my opinion, this doesn’t make it a ménage. It’s an erotic romance with threesome scenes. Readers expecting an HEA for all three of them will be sorely disappointed.

That might not be the only thing that disappoints them. While the erotic scenes are pretty good, the characters themselves are shallow caricatures, serving as placeholders for the fantasy fulfillment of the plot. It’s hardly anything new. A lot of stories do that for the sake of getting to the sex. Zach comes across as both a caveman in his behavior and a prude in his thoughts, the latter most likely a vague attempt to give him depth as he struggles with what he’s doing (having sex with Jake and moving so quickly with Honor). Honor seems to be the sort of strong heroine that many readers prefer, but honestly, as soon as sex gets involved, she throws a lot of her dreams out the window in favor of lust.

While this is the first in a series, I won’t be bothering with any of the subsequent stories. Threesomes don’t make the entire story a ménage. HEAs are about emotional commitments, and in this case, only two of them do it. I don’t trust the rest of the stories not to try and fool me again.

Readability

7/10 – Nothing offensive about it, but there’s nothing special, either

Hero

5/10 – A weird dichotomy of caveman behavior with puritanical thinking that never gelled for me

Heroine

5/10 – Wants to come across as strong, but is just fantasy fulfillment rather than a real character

Entertainment value

4/10 – The erotic scenes aren’t bad, but the story lacks any depth or believability not to mention mislabeled

World building

6/10 – Some of the grittiness of the period, but little to make it memorable

TOTAL:

27/50

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Vampire's Madam by L. Rosario

TITLE: The Vampire’s Madam
AUTHOR: L. Rosario
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Short story (roughly 8k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotic romance
COST: $2.00

A madam of a high-end brothel in London, Janna has been infatuated with one of her regulars for the entire two-and-a-half years he’s been coming to her business. Not once in all that time has she offered to service him herself, but after she witnesses a particularly torrid night with one of her girls, she decides that she’ll allow no other girl in her employ to give him what he needs – her blood…

Finding an excellent short story in the romance genre is difficult, mostly because authors usually prove too ambitious within the story’s parameters. This one is yet another that falls woefully short.

The story takes place in Victorian London, in a high-end brothel run by the half-Welsh/half-Indian beauty, Janna. Janna has been shunned by society her entire life because of the color of her skin, and takes great pride in running one of the most successful establishments in the city. The only thing keeping her from true satisfaction is seeing the man she lusts after come into her business every Wednesday night and going off with one of her girls instead of her. After two and a half years, she gives in to the voyeuristic desire to see what’s going on and discovers that the gorgeous Hugh de Troyes is actually a vampire. She decides then and there that no other woman in her employ will see to his needs. She can give him everything he desires.

If this story had stuck to being erotica, it just might have worked. The set-up is a little trite, but the heat in the voyeuristic first third was sufficient to hint at how explosive the rest of it could be. However, it doesn’t settle for that. Instead, it attempts to be a meaningful historical/paranormal/romance on top of the erotica, and in the space of just less than eight thousand words, it just didn’t succeed. What’s meant to be romantic declarations of unending love come across as just silly. Hugh is a six-hundred year old vampire who claims to have been alone all this time, and that Janna is the one for him. Seriously. They’re making vows to spend eternity together with barely any time at all to get to know either one of them, let alone the fact that Janna really knows very little about the vampire’s current life, only what she’s gleaned from history books. History we’re told about toward the end of the story as if it actually has time to mean anything by that point. It’s one big information dump that feels irrelevant to the rest of the story except to justify expecting readers to buy into the “romance” part of it.

It didn’t work. It pulled me even further out of the story. The sex ends up mired in all this melodrama and clumsy writing, Hugh and Janna become little more than flat figures trying to fit into the niches the author has created, and the story itself is uninspiring.

Readability

7/10 – Hot when it had to be, but mostly just inoffensive

Hero

4/10 – Hints of appeal before the story derailed

Heroine

4/10 – Mostly just really horny

Entertainment value

3/10 – It can’t decide what it wants to be and ends up being schizophrenic as a result

World building

5/10 – Some details are described, but most of it’s either relayed in conversation or glossed over completely

TOTAL:

23/50

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No Angel by Vivi Andrews

TITLE: No Angel
AUTHOR: Vivi Andrews
PUBLISHER: Carina Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 33k)
GENRE: Paranormal romance
COST: $2.69

Sasha was born into Hollywood royalty, but being recognized isn’t exactly high on her list. The fact that her current boyfriend doesn’t seem to care is a bonus, but the way he’s stonewalling on meeting her famous mother on Christmas is not. She’s going to make one last ditch effort to convince him, even though she worries about his odd behavior the past few months. Little does she realize that Jay isn’t the goody-two-shoes she believes him to be, nor is he worried about meeting her mother. His fears are a little bit bigger than that, mainly how he’s going to tell her he’s actually half-demon and can’t spend Christmas on the mortal plane. Before he can explain it, however, he’s sucked into a vortex, and Sasha finds herself with a contract from the angels to rescue him from Hell before dawn…

I held off on buying the holiday anthologies that Carina put out last year, instead choosing to pick up a few of the individual novellas instead. Most of the time, I actually prefer this method rather than purchasing whole collections that often leave me more disappointed than not. This way, I can pick and choose what I want to read and better my odds at finding a gem. With this one, I came out a winner.

The story opens with Sasha on Christmas Eve, braving grocery store crowds to pick up a missing ingredient for the baking bonanza she has planned to surprise her boyfriend with. She’s running late because the store is a zoo, and has a less than pleasant experience when she’s recognized. See, her mother is considered Hollywood royalty, and though Sasha isn’t an actress, she’s treated in much the same way. It’s a role she’s tired of, since she can rarely be certain if someone wants to know her for her rather than her family connections. Her boyfriend is one of the few who doesn’t seem to care who she is. Jay is a good man, more low-key than the bad boys she usually dates, but Sasha is worried that his repeated refusals to spend Christmas with her family mean there’s bad news on the horizon. Especially since he told her they needed to talk. Little does she know that Jay isn’t exactly what he seems. He’s half-demon, and as such, isn’t allowed to be on the mortal plane for Christmas. In fact, he was supposed to be back in Hell months ago, but he’s ignored various summons in favor of staying with Sasha. Now, though, he knows he needs to tell her the truth, but before he can, a vortex opens in Sasha’s kitchen and sucks him straight to Hell. Sasha is then visited by an angel who lays upon her the responsibility of retrieving Jay before dawn, or losing him forever.

Comedy is always a tricky sell, because humor often translates so differently to paper. I’ve not always had the best luck when I’ve tried it out, but this time, I got lucky. Where most holiday stories tend to be saccharine sweet, this one was plucky, smart, and kickass.

The author’s voice is suitably sarcastic and sharp, befitting both of her leads, and the pacing is brisk and compelling. I could have easily read another 30k without batting an eyelash. Both the characters and the situation were that entertaining.

I especially loved the heroine. Sasha disdains the superficiality of the world she was born into, choosing to be a stuntwoman rather than an actress. She has a propensity for falling for bad boys, but her latest boyfriend, Jay, seems the antithesis of that. She met him in a library, and she often thinks that he’s actually too good for her. However, he sees past all the crap that comes with being her, and for that alone, he should be a keeper. Her reactions throughout the story reflect this front she wears like armor, when in actuality, she’s as scared and vulnerable as anybody else. It never gets in her way, however, and her consistent bravery and fast thinking made her incredibly easy to root for.

Jay’s a little harder to get a grasp on, but that’s due mostly to the duality of his nature, the fact that he’s kept so much hidden from Sasha, and the slightly sketchy world-building that doesn’t really provide all the answers I needed. My first perceptions of him are colored by Sasha’s thoughts, and it takes a while for those to smooth away to allow his real personality to shine through. When it does, he’s every inch the hero he actually wants to be, even if he’s just a little tarnished. It’s the tarnish that makes him so fascinating.

Knowing I can trust this author’s voice makes me eager to delve into her backlist. I know she’s published with Samhain at the very least. I’ll probably start there. Because when a story is this well-written, with characters that are real in spite of its supernatural setting and such excellent pacing, there’s no way I can stop at reading just one.

Readability

9/10 – Funny, intelligent, and completely absorbing

Hero

8/10 – I had less of a handle on him as his dual nature wasn’t very smoothly portrayed, but that didn’t stop me from really enjoying him

Heroine

9/10 – Sassy, confident, and ready to kick ass

Entertainment value

9/10 – This isn’t one of your saccharine holiday tales, it’s fun and spirited

World building

7/10 – With the focus so much on the paranormal world, I needed either better clarification of how it all worked or more of it

TOTAL:

42/50

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bad Company by K.A. Mitchell

TITLE: Bad Company
AUTHOR: K.A. Mitchell
PUBLISHER: Samhain
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 57k)
GENRE: Gay contemporary erotic romance
COST: $4.50

Kicked out and cut off by his father, Kellan decides to hit the old man where it hurts – by pretending to be gay and cutting deep into his father’s homophobic heart and business. He goes to the one gay guy he knows, his childhood friend Nate, but the reasons for their falling out are still alive in Nate’s memory. He’s not as eager to play along with Kellan’s scheme, no matter how much he might have loved Kellan back in the day…

K.A. Mitchell is one of those authors I constantly see recommended everywhere, but have failed to get engaged in any of the blurbs or excerpts I’ve tried. When this one came out, I was sufficiently interested to give it a go, though I’ll freely admit some of that was to finally satisfy my curiosity. Sadly, I’m still not sure what the big deal is.

The plot is a simple Gay For You throwaway. This time, rich and famous Kellan has decided to get back at his homophobic father for cutting him off by doing everything he demands except with a guy instead of a woman. He ropes in his childhood friend Nate to help, though Nate has spent the last decade and more hating Kellan for a wide variety of infractions, not the least of which was outing him to the entire high school and standing idly by while Nate was badly bullied. Nate doesn’t want to help, but his liberal, idealistic side finds it hard to resist the offer Kellan makes of real proof against Kellan’s father. He agrees to help, which means Kellan living with him, for a two-month period. Needless to say, not everything goes as planned.

My problems arise almost from the start. While the dialogue is crisp and original, both lead characters were so unlikeable that I found it difficult to care about what was going on with them. Kellan is spoiled, immature, irresponsible, and obsessed with sex (when he keeps looking at the blonde at his first job as a walking blowjob, I almost stopped reading right then), while Nate is high-handed and supercilious, with such self-righteous tendencies he felt like a liberal stereotype. Guys like this might deserve happy endings, too, but that doesn’t mean I need to waste my time reading about it.

It doesn’t help that the set-up feels flimsy at best. I just don’t understand why it had to be Nate. All the people he’s met over the years, and he doesn’t know one other gay man? He claims that he owes money to most of his friends, but he’s done a lot. Somebody had to be a better choice than the childhood friend he completely screwed with. Because these two are very different men. They’ve grown up wanting different things. They live different lifestyles. What do they have in common to build a real future on except the memories of their childhood together and sex? Nothing that I could see.

The flimsiness holds all the way to the end with the wishy-washy resolution with Kellan’s father. The only reason I even made it that far was because it was such a swift and easy read. The dialogue was fresh and often funny, and the sex well-written. Characters felt real, too, which doesn’t always happen when I don’t like a story. But it’s that reality, I think, when slapped in the middle of a straight contemporary like this, that gets in the way from truly enjoying it. I just don’t like the two heroes. In a romance, I need to like at least one person in the pairing to get emotionally invested. That didn’t happen this time.

Readability

8/10 – Snappy dialogue with memorable characters

Hero #1

5/10 – Immature and selfish, real but not very likeable

Hero #2

5/10 – Uptight and self-righteous, again real but just not very likeable

Entertainment value

5/10 – While I couldn’t stop reading, I didn’t really get much emotional satisfaction from it since I just didn’t like either lead

World building

6/10 – Little is done to expound or take advantage of the various settings

TOTAL:

29/50

Friday, August 19, 2011

Trespass by Meg Maguire

TITLE: Trespass
AUTHOR: Meg Maguire
PUBLISHER: Samhain
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 64k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotic romance
COST: $5.50

Hurt and on the run, Sarah stumbles onto a property in Montana, thinking she’ll spend the night in the barn before sneaking off in the morning. She’s surprised when she wakes the owner’s dogs, who in turn wake the owner. Russ rushes out with his rifle to see what the commotion is all about and discovers a young woman bleeding. As a doctor, even if he is a veterinarian, he has to see what’s wrong and take care of it, so he ushers her inside and tends to her wounds. He insists she stay on until she’s healed, during which time the two flirt and get to know each other. When Sarah tries to move on – by stealing from him and sneaking away in the middle of the night – Russ catches her. Hurt by her deception, he now has to figure out what to do with her…

Sometimes, all it takes for me to love a book is to fall in love with the hero.

Sarah Novak is on the run after being a part of a crime in Buffalo. She’s tried hitchhiking, with disastrous effects, and her latest attempt to find shelter ended up with the owner shooting buckshot into her side. It’s purely accidental she stumbles onto Russ’s property, and even more so that he turns out to be a vet. He insists on taking care of her injury as well as giving her a place to stay until she’s well enough to move on. Sarah gives him a fake name and refuses to answer questions about her past, an indulgence he grants because he both wants to trust in the best of people and he’s lonely as all hell. Their flirtation and friendship becomes something more over a couple days, but Sarah knows she has to move on. She takes measures to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night, stealing a little from Russ in order to get by, but unfortunately for her, Russ wakes up and catches her. Hurt and angered by her betrayal, he then has to decide what exactly he’s going to do with her.

I’ll state it simply. I. Loved. Russ. I was in love with him before Sarah made the disastrous choice to run out, and that only exploded in the face of his anger and roiling emotions after she betrayed him. Widowed for seven years, he’s led an incredibly isolated life in the time since. In a lot of ways, he’s moved on from his wife’s death, compartmentalizing it in such a way that he can function. But deep in his heart, he’s incredibly lonely and masks that pain with his work. Sarah gives him a glimpse of what it would be like to have someone in his life again, and for the first time in years, he begins to feel human again. Part of that is sheer lust. He doesn’t have many opportunities in the backwoods of Montana, and Sarah is a pretty girl. But they hit it off, too, enjoying each other’s company as friends before they become lovers. He finds a playfulness that counters his quiet existence and blossoms in this brief affair.

But then Sarah’s deception comes to life, and Russ feels like a complete fool. He’s angry and hurt, but his fury is as much directed at himself for giving in to the hope as it is at her for lying and stealing from him. He has to decide for himself how he’s going to deal with it, and it’s this emotional need that drives the rest of the story. His desperation is palpable, but I never felt like it was misdirected. It comes from his loneliness, and honestly, he and Sarah hit it off so well, I can’t blame him for wanting to embrace it fully. There’s a scene before he discovers the truth about Sarah where she has turned down his offer to spend the night with him in his bed, but he, after being unable to fall asleep on his own, goes out to her on the couch and asks to sleep with her there. This simple action is the quintessential example of just how cut off this man really was. I can see how some people might think him a sucker for choosing to believing in Sarah – even he calls himself one more than once – but it stems from his good heart and need to believe in the best of people. He made some bad choices. That makes him human.

While I loved Russ, I had problems with Sarah. It wasn’t at first, but as soon as it became clear what she was going to do to him, I got furious at her for hurting him like that. By that point, we don’t have any details on why exactly she’s on the run, but I think if I had known more, I would have been more sympathetic to the choices she made then, even as awful as they were. As it was, I didn’t know enough to be able to gather a fair judgment on her, and so I spent the entire middle section of the book pretty much hating the girl. It’s not helped that she turns into a mouse full of apologies when Russ hauls her back to his house. The spark that he’d liked about her in the beginning was gone, and I needed some of that to try and understand why I should care about her. It eventually returns, but honestly, it took too long to get there. It’s not helped that the reasons for her running were incredibly lame. They just made her look stupid in the long run, which only hindered the process of trying to sympathize with her.

The writing is clean and evocative, with fantastic dialogue, but I do have one quibble. The author was great about using scene breaks to denote POV shifts, but there’s a sex scene in the middle where she headhops between the two while each masturbates to thoughts of the other. I know why she did it. It’s obvious that it’s deliberate, a way to mirror their thoughts and emotions so closely. But compared to the smoothness of the rest of the story, the effect was incredibly jarring, so much so that I literally stopped and went back to re-read more than once to make sure I wasn’t being stupid about what I was seeing.

That being said, I was sucked in by Russ and the incredibly realistic interactions between him and Sarah. Their banter and actions captivated me up to the point where Sarah went off the deep end for me, while his emotions held me prisoner from that point on. I loved that they were so wonderfully flawed. Neither is particularly smart, though they’re both capable, and they react from the gut rather than the head. In a lot of ways, Russ felt like Everyman, his imperfections only highlighting just how real his emotions were.

This is the second hero and book by this author that I’ve loved this year. After this one, she’s going to my autobuy list. I seriously need to take a look at her backlist, too.

Readability

8/10 – Clean, evocative, great dialogue, with only a minor scene in the middle to really throw me

Hero

10/10 – The heart and soul of this story, decent but so lonely

Heroine

6/10 – Her really lame backstory combined with actions that just felt completely despicable – even if she did recognize they were – made it really hard for me to like her

Entertainment value

9/10 – I was so sucked into Russ’s emotions and needs that I didn’t really care how flimsy the reasons were for them to be together

World building

7/10 – The aspects of his job felt fully realized, but Sarah’s part in it felt flat in comparison

TOTAL:

40/50

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Forbidden Thunder by Kathleen Lash

TITLE: Forbidden Thunder
AUTHOR: Kathleen Lash
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 93k)
GENRE: Contemporary romance
COST: $6.00

When one of the company trucks gets in a precarious accident, Caila does what her trapped brother asks and calls Four Sons Towing to help them out. Little does she know that in doing so, she’s settling an old debt between their fathers, but rather than yank the livelihood away from a lot of good people, she’s able to come to an agreement with John Thunder, the man who now runs the towing company. It means putting in a lot of hours and making a lot of sacrifices, but more importantly, it means spending a lot of time with a man who drives her senses crazy…

Readers are always on the hunt for books that blow them away, so it’s always a disappointment when yet another one fails to live up to that hope. This one definitely falls into the realm of missed opportunities.

It starts off all right. Caila runs the business end of her family’s trucking company. When her brother is in a dangerous accident, he instructs her to call Four Sons Towing, even though their father strictly forbade them from doing so prior to his retirement. She displays courage and strength as she steps in to help however she can, at the same time meeting John Thunder, the son who now runs the towing company. Little does she know that a deal was made forty years earlier. In order to settle a lawsuit, Caila’s father agreed to pay $4,000,000 to John’s father in the event his company ever called the Thunders for help. There is no way the company has that kind of money to settle the debt, but Caila manages to finagle a settlement with John, preying on his sense of fairness to not put a lot of innocent people out of work. It forces the two of them to work in close proximity, during which time their attraction combusts.

The story goes on from there. And on. And on. At over 90k, it’s not a fast read, mostly because it gets bogged in really sloppy perspective and scene shifts, poor pacing, and tedious melodramatic events that end up repeating themselves in an attempt to put the principals at risk. Where John had seemed wonderfully alpha at the beginning, by a third of the way into the story he simply comes across as controlling and sullen, not appealing at all. He claims to admire her strength, but every time she displays independence in a way he doesn’t like or approve of, he goes off on her in the most condescending fashion imaginable. The romantic progression was jerky at best, with them being awful to each other and then suddenly chewing each other’s faces off. Plot points lurched out of nowhere to create drama, during which the narrative was so clumsy it was often hard to understand what exactly was going on. Then, I had to put up with what seemed like serious injuries getting ignored in favor of sexual escapades.

There was mild hope in Caila, but that got destroyed by the relationships surrounding her. Caila sacrificed a lot for her family and company, always putting her all into her work, her own needs on the back burner. I really liked that backbone in her, as did John. What creeped me out was her relationship with her brothers. They’re a very close family, but incredibly touchy-feely. This capable young woman gets pulled into their laps, gets her hair caressed, gets her face constantly touched, in ways that seem inappropriate from brothers. It’s made worse when John does the exact same thing. What was likely meant to be innocent becomes cast in a romantic, intimate light, until it got to the point where I would cringe every time another scene with a brother showed up. Which was a lot. She had four of them, after all. It’s explained away as a reaction to their traumatic childhoods, but that comes too late in the story to do any good. My feelings on them were already cemented.

I guess I’m still on the hunt. It’s too bad, because under better conditions, John is a type of hero I’d totally fall for.

Readability

6/10 – Sloppy POV, poor pacing, and repetition problems

Hero

4/10 – Intense but not in a good way, controlling and dour

Heroine

5/10 – Strong and independent, but inconsistent and her relationship with her brothers creeped me out

Entertainment value

3/10 – The prose was a mess, the relationships a little creepy, and the repetition/overkill on problems too much to believe

World building

7/10 – Well, she knows her trucking industry, that’s for sure

TOTAL:

25/50

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Darkling Thrush by Josh Lanyon

TITLE: The Darkling Thrush
AUTHOR: Josh Lanyon
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 49k)
GENRE: Gay fantasy erotic romance
COST: $5.99

On an exchange program from Boston, Colin Bliss finds himself sitting behind a desk in London, trying to get over the fact that he’s had an affair with his married supervisor and has been discourteously dumped, when he’s offered the chance to find a book nobody is even sure exists. It seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, especially since he’s desperate to get away, so he takes the job, only to find his co-worker, the enigmatic Septimus Marx, on his heels the entire way…

I picked this up off the TBR pile in hopes that it would be a safe read from an author I trusted. Unfortunately, it turned out to be my least favorite work by him by a long shot.

The story starts out with Colin Bliss, a book hunter working on an exchange program in London, receiving an odd invitation to come view the book Colin had found. Colin goes, only to be offered the chance to search for a book that most believe to be a myth. His would-be employers are convinced otherwise, and he accepts. It’s a combination of a couple of things – curiosity, professional drive, and the desire to escape his workplace for a while. The affair he’d been conducting with his married boss has recently come to an end, and things are awkward at work to say the least. The search isn’t as easy as it seems to be however, especially when one of his co-workers, the enigmatic Septimus Marx, ends up on the same train to Scotland. It only gets harder once he arrives.

In some ways, this has the Lanyon stamp all over it. Told in 1st person, the narrator has a similar physicality to previous Lanyon heroes, as well as the same idealistic nature. The prose is mostly lovely, and the mystery/action (once it gets into full swing) paced well. But there are definite differences, too, things that most decidedly pulled me out of enjoying it very much.

First of all, the beginning is mired in awkward information dumps. For a fantasy world, he needs to acquaint the reader with what he’s created, but I found these pages the hardest to slog through of the entire story. It’s confusing until much of it comes into context later on, with a lot of unfamiliar names thrown at the reader all at once. It might not be so bad if I wasn’t also trying to get a grasp on what the differences in this world were. But I was, and so ended up trying to keep all these details straight without having the right or comfortable context for it.

It’s not helped by early editorial mistakes. For instance, Colin is introduced to the Lady Margaret Lavenham, the museum procurator. She alternately gets called Lady Margaret and Lady Lavenham (in the midst of trying to keep all the other names straight), and then gets referred to as Lavinia by Anstruther, the museum’s presul. The name Lavinia is never mentioned again. I can only think that maybe the character had a name change from an earlier draft and this one was missed. Mix these kind of mistakes with the brewing and messy world-building that was going on at the same time, and it turned into a big headache.

As familiar as he was, I did like Colin and his innocence, but the romance never worked for me. Part of that is my fault. Marx is introduced (in quite a negative light and in a very menacing way) as being tall and thin with shoulder-length black hair and slashed eyebrows. I couldn’t get a picture of Snape out of my head for the entire book. Part of it, however, is the insta-love feel when they get to the ending. It was rushed and unexplained, and ultimately unbelievable. The plot and action helped to keep me engaged with the story once I finally settled into the world halfway through, but even that seemed slighted by the hurried last quarter.

In the end, I just don’t think Lanyon’s fantasy writing is my cup of tea. This needed more pages to better explore the characters and explain the world, as well as a tighter editorial hand.

Readability

7/10 – The information dump and early editorial mistakes bogged down the first third, though it picked up as the story went on

Hero #1

7/10 – Naïve and idealistic, though oddly charming

Hero #2

4/10 – Some interesting ideas behind him but never felt realized

Entertainment value

4/10 – A boggy first third and an unbelievably rushed last third makes this my least favorite Lanyon title

World building

6/10 – I liked the ideas as I finally sorted them out, but the beginning was laden with awkward info dumps and too much was left unanswered

TOTAL:

28/50

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Afterlife by Natalie J. Damschroder

TITLE: Afterlife
AUTHOR: Natalie J. Damschroder
PUBLISHER: Amber Quill
LENGTH: Short story (roughly 14k)
GENRE: Paranormal erotica
COST: $4.00

A parachuting jump goes wrong, and Chloe finds herself in the afterlife, facing a choice. She’s been given the opportunity to spend eternity with her True Love. The only problem, she has three of them, and now she has to choose…

Adventurous Chloe goes parachuting, but when her chute malfunctions, she dies and finds herself in the afterlife. There, she’s told briefly how the afterlife works, and that she is fortunate enough to be part of those who have had a True Love. She gets to spend eternity with him now. The problem is, she’s had three of them – her high school bad boy sweetheart, the man she spent ten years of her life with in domestic comfort, and the one she flirted with but never followed through on. She has to choose and gets one day with each to help make up her mind. The days go as expected, meaning briefly getting reacquainted followed by sex. When she’s all done, however, she’s more confused than ever.

The possibility of how this might turn out lent a natural tension to the story as I read, but while that helps in making me rush through to the ending, it ended up distracting me sufficiently from enjoying the moment like Chloe was. Her three choices are very different. Brady was her high school sweetheart, the bad boy she left behind when she went to college, killed before she could return. Then there’s Eli, the man she lived with for ten years, until her miscarriage drove them apart. Finally, there’s Tristan, a man she flirted with when her relationship with Eli was on the decline but never actually slept with. Each offers something different to her, and did in the past as well when she had them in her life. She gets the chance to get a taste of each, but her constant uncertainty of what she’s going to do heightens the stress levels even when she’s supposedly at peace within the scenario. Because the question of what she’s ultimately going to choose hangs like the sword of Damocles over every aspect. By the time I got to the final chapter, I respected all three men and what they had meant for her, but had no clue how to go about committing to one. It’s all so very much wrapped up in who you are as a person and where you are in your life, the questions that are never answered for which you yearn for resolution. Everyone who reads this is likely to have a completely different take, simply because we’re all uniquely positioned when we pick up a story.

Though there’s a sex scene associated with each of the men, this is much more emotional erotica than sexual. That’s not to say it doesn’t get graphic because it does, but it works as well as it does because of the knotty feelings that are involved rather than heat of the moment. It does feel manipulative at times, but when you’re dealing with such complex feelings, that’s probably to be expected a little bit. Can I recommend this, then? I think it depends on what you’re looking for, to be honest. I didn’t check back with the publisher site before starting it and thought I was reading a romance. It’s not. It’s very much not. Some of the genre expectations I have from that ended up diminishing my overall reaction to the story. On the other hand, there’s some real feelings generated by it, and the characters are well-rounded and believable. It does have the use of a miscarriage to generate emotional conflict, so if this is a trigger issue, it might be worth skipping because of that, but otherwise, go into it with open eyes and you might be rewarded.

Readability

8/10 – Clean, unassuming, but much of the same tempts me to skim

Erotica

7/10 – More about the emotions than the sex, which makes a nice change

Characterization

8/10 – Surprisingly differentiated and believable

Entertainment value

7/10 – Expecting a different genre as I was reading altered my expectations enough to diminish my appreciation of the work as a whole

World building

6/10 – Within scenes, rather lovely; as a greater whole, I needed more answers

TOTAL:

36/50

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Badland Bride by Lauri Robinson

TITLE: Badland Bride
AUTHOR: Lauri Robinson
PUBLISHER: Wild Rose Press
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 74k)
GENRE: Time travel romance
COST: $6.00

Lila Scott is on the run from a man determined to kill her. Skeeter Quinter is a ghost in the house she decides to hide in. Together, they manage to evade the psycho, but when Lila ends up in the 1880s and Skeeter comes back to his mortal form, their problems are only beginning…

I read the first book in this series quite some time ago, and have been buying subsequent installations as they come out, though they’ve languished on my TBR pile for quite some time. After reading this second book, I’m starting to wonder if I should have saved my money on the books that follow it.

It starts out in modern-day Kansas, with twenty-two year-old Lila Scott trying to escape the psycho who raped her. Pregnant with his child, she discovered his sordid past and now he wants to kill her before she can make things worse for him. She decides to hide in an abandoned house, but in actuality, the house isn’t nearly as abandoned as she thinks. It’s haunted by Skeeter Quinter, and when he realizes she’s in trouble, he helps her escape through a tunnel that leads into a nearby cave. When Lila emerges, she finds a half-naked man asleep in the cave, a man who turns out to be Skeeter back in his body. He rejoices that he’s not a ghost anymore, but she is determined to get back to the future. The only problem with that was Skeeter destroyed the tunnel so the psycho couldn’t follow them. With no other choice, Lila goes with him back to his family. His plan is to get his brothers to help him dig out the tunnel and help Lila find a portal back to her time, but once Skeeter’s Ma finds out she’s pregnant, another shotgun wedding takes place.

I wanted to love this. I had fond memories of the first, so I settled in thinking this would be a great comfort read. The beginning hints at some great tension, but almost straight away, technical issues arise. On the very first page, “loosing” is used for “losing” and by the third, the verb tense starts fluctuating between past and present. I hung in there, though, mostly because Skeeter got introduced. He’s charming, funny, and full of heart, and I was genuinely concerned about Lila enough to want to see her safe. So I plugged through the less than clean prose. Soon, however, I developed another stumbling block. Lila herself. The charm she exhibited at meeting Skeeter gets derailed very quickly as she becomes obsessed with returning back to the future. She’s convinced she’s going to die in childbirth since it’s the 1880s, and she builds this issue up to mythic proportions in her head. She does this so much that when she meets Skeeter’s pregnant sister-in-law, she begins badgering her about taking it easy, as if she’s some expert on pregnancy (it got to the point where every time she referenced looking up information on pregnancy on the internet, I rolled my eyes). Lila becomes so self-centered and annoying that I actually started to really dislike her, and when she’s half of the romantic equation, that’s not good.

It’s a good thing that Skeeter stays so lovely, because I would never have finished this otherwise. He’s helped by his colorful family, characters I find myself adoring all the more for putting up with Lila. Kid and Jessie from the first book are happy together, and hints of what might be a future pairing with Bug and Eva are appealing. I even liked Skeeter’s Sioux friend, Buffalo Killer (especially at the end with the exchange of secrets between him and Lila, that was particularly well done and very humorous). They helped make the story more tolerable. I needed something because I wasn’t getting it from Lila or the plot (the details regarding her psycho were dodgy at best, silly at worst).

I have more of the Quinter Bride books on my TBR pile. At this point, I don’t know when I’ll get to them. The charm has been tarnished a little by how much I disliked Lila and her selfish, immature attitudes. I can only hope she doesn’t show up very much in the subsequent stories.

Readability

5/10 – Editorial mistakes abound, including missing words, misused/misspelled words, and tense shifts, so it feels like a first draft rather than a polished copy

Hero

8/10 – His heart and humor are the sole reasons I stuck with reading this

Heroine

5/10 – Self-centered and so single-minded she comes across as highly immature

Entertainment value

6/10 – The romance flounders, and the plotting is shallow and almost silly, but I do love the Quinters

World building

7/10 – Points for the historical setting, but the handling of the time travel aspect was sloppy

TOTAL:

31/50

Monday, August 8, 2011

Raincheck by Sarah Madison

TITLE: Raincheck
AUTHOR: Sarah Madison
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner Press
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 17k)
GENRE: Gay paranormal erotic romance
COST: $3.99

Every night, he wakes up on his stone perch atop the Freemont building. Every dawn, he returns to wait for another day to pass. For Rodney, life is safe and predictable, but only until one of the building’s tenants wanders up to the roof at a crucial junction in his life. David takes the advice Rodney doles out, and the two become friends. David is Rodney’s first, in more ways than one…

This short novella begins with Rodney on the roof, considering the sameness of his existence, the invisible chains that lock him to the Freemont. Everything changes when a tenant wanders up, and for the first time ever, a human hears Rodney speak. He offers advice to the stranger, a man named David, only to discover a couple weeks later that David has taken him up on it. The two become casual friends, but Rodney’s interest is more than that. Thoughts of David consume him, and with little else to take his time, he silently follows the man to learn as much as possible about him.

I know this sounds kind of stalkerish, but Rodney is saved from those kind of creepy vibes by the deliberate melancholy that permeates his characterization from the very first page. He’s lonely, desperately so, and doesn’t even realize the extent of it himself until he begins talking with David. He’s always aware of his actions, and recognizes how they could be misinterpreted, putting the label on it himself before the reader can. This helps tremendously in building trust in him as a character, because he’s acting in a rational way a reader can believe in. Establishing that common link turns him from a potential monster into a creature to be empathized with. He is the single biggest reason to enjoy this story.

David doesn’t benefit from the same kind of depths, unfortunately. Some effort is made to give him some, but it lacks the emotional resonance Rodney’s has. Much of that probably has to do with the fact that we spend a lot more time in Rodney’s head than David’s. We see the object of his obsession rather than the flesh-and-blood man. Ironic that the character with the flatter depths is the human instead of the gargoyle.

Storywise, the ending is predictable and the sizzle between them a little flat. We ended up hearing about most of their interactions (after their initial meeting and before the primary event of the story) secondhand, so it’s difficult to get a good grasp on the chemistry between them. Rodney saves this in a lot of ways, making it easy to forgive some of the story’s weaknesses simply because I wanted to see him in any shape or form. Without him to give the novella its heart, it would’ve been another mediocre short to be forgotten an hour after finishing. His presence, though, elevates it a little higher than that.

Readability

8/10 – Minor editorial issues, but the pervasive melancholy in the prose is oddly compelling

Hero #1

8/10 – Who’d’ve thunk it was possible to feel sorry for a gargoyle?

Hero #2

5/10 – Rather idealized in a lot of ways and not nearly as compelling as Rodney

Entertainment value

7/10 – Lost some steam towards the end when the focus shifted more to David, but I still enjoyed this

World building

6/10 – Some nice imagery, but the explanations on gargoyles are deliberately vague and thus annoying

TOTAL:

34/50

Friday, August 5, 2011

Unbroken by Lynne Connolly

TITLE: Unbroken
AUTHOR: Lynne Connolly
PUBLISHER: Total-e-bound
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 20k)
GENRE: Contemporary erotic romance
COST: ₤2.49

Renowned model Vashti’s most recent job is unlike anything she’s done before. It’s also the first job she’s had since a car accident a year before killed her mother and left Vashti badly scarred. Artist Zoltan is more interested in her flaws than her beauty, however, and when he sees straight through her façade, in ways nobody ever has before, Vashti feels her defenses being stripped away, layer by layer…

Sometimes I pick shorter stories because I know I’m not going to have much time to read. This is one of those that I wish could’ve been much longer, because of the potential I could see glimmering within its words that didn’t quite come through for me.

The central premise behind this short novella isn’t really all that new. It’s a reverse Pygmalion, where the artist is attempting to manipulate the model’s flaws rather than beauty. Vashti has extensive scars from the car accident that killed her mother, the woman who guided Vashti’s modeling career ever since she was five years old. She’s taken this job modeling for Zoltan partially because it will help thrust her back into the limelight in time for her career to resume and partially because she’s curious about what he will do. He’s interested in moving from the abstract to life forms, and he’s chosen Vashti as his subject based on a candid paparazzi picture he saw that hinted at the honesty behind the public mask she wears. He sees through her almost from the start, a revelation so startling to Vashti that the physical attraction that had sparked at his appearance burns to proportions she can’t deny. The pair become lovers, but it inevitably has to end once the project is completed.

These are not caricatures or stereotypes. Both Vashti and Zoltan have depths that make them fascinating people, but they suffer from the story’s shortness. It always feels like there’s not enough given to me to get to truly engage with the emotions going on. It’s especially rough in the beginning when I’m thrust into Vashti’s perspective and very little is given on Zoltan to provide a basis for her first reactions. That ends up coming later in the first scene, and it’s very awkward. Gradually, I get to know more about the enigmatic Zoltan, but just when things start to get interesting, the scene ends and there’s a time jump. It’s not enough. It’s especially frustrating because these are people I want to really sink into.

The issues with the story’s brevity are mitigated by how lovely and lyrical some of the passages are regarding Zoltan’s art. These are exquisitely described and contribute a lot to the romanticism that permeates the entire piece. In fact, they go a long way in boosting my overall enjoyment, especially when it would’ve been easy to let my frustration and not getting what I needed from the characterizations take over. The sensuality that pervades the prose and their sex carries the emotional weight when the characters falter, making it easier to enjoy the ending when it comes.

If I learned anything from reading this, it was that perhaps I need to go back and check out the author’s backlist. I know she’s done a lot, but I can’t say that I was intrigued enough by any of the historical blurbs she has at Samhain or the contemporaries she has at Loose Id to buy one. I might have to re-evaluate that decision. I know those are longer. It could be exactly what I’m looking for.

Readability

8/10 – Some lovely passages combined with clean editing compensates for shortcomings elsewhere

Hero

6/10 – Took a while to get a feel for him, kept wishing for more

Heroine

7/10 – Marginally more well-rounded but could still have had more depth

Entertainment value

7/10 – Lovely and erotic, I only wished the characters were given the room to shine like it felt like they deserved

World building

8/10 – Their world was his art for the most part, and that’s where the bulk of the prose’s lyricism came to life

TOTAL:

36/50

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Anchor by Jorrie Spencer

TITLE: Anchor
AUTHOR: Jorrie Spencer
PUBLISHER: Samhain
LENGTH: Novel (roughly 54k)
GENRE: Paranormal romance
COST: $4.50

Mala has dreams about helping wolves in need, but when she starts to think they might somehow be real, she decides to check it out for herself. She finds herself in Wolf Town, in the alpha’s home, face to face with proof that the lives she’s saving in her dreams belong to real people. Angus doesn’t know what to make of this woman who claims to be able to get into wolves’ dreams, but he’s willing to believe in her. He needs to. The safety of the wolves he takes care of – as well as Mala’s – is too important…

The latest entry in Spencer’s shifter series adds some interesting texture to the world she’s created, but ultimately, doesn’t really work as a romance.

Mala has had night terrors all of her life, dreams where she becomes a part of a wolf who is in terrible fear of its life. Over the years, she’s learned how to harness that fear and turn it into a weapon against the attacker, but the nightmares always leave her shaken and exhausted, not to mention isolated and half-convinced she’s crazy. At least, until she slips back into the mind of the latest wolf she’s saved and discovers his name and where he lives. After losing her latest job, she decides to go check it out and see if the wolf is for real. She doesn’t think he will be, so color her surprised when she shows up in Wolf Town and finds out that he is. The alpha in Wolf Town is Angus, a leader who’s more nurturing than he is violent. He’s been protecting the young wolf Mala saved, and when he learns that Mala has been visiting wolves in her sleep, does everything he can to keep Mala in town. He’s convinced she’ll be in danger should news of her talents spread, not to mention the fact that the violent wolf after his new ward is still out there, waiting to kill both of them.

The action in this is fairly seamless and continuous, providing a constant forward momentum that makes the novel a quick and easy read. The aspect of Mala being what the wolves have dubbed a dream wraith brings some new elements to Spencer’s shifter world, a new avenue to explore as her powers aren’t heard of by anybody, not even by series regular (and one of my favorites) Trey. It opens doors in stories to come and keeps the world interesting and colorful, constantly growing and changing, but it does so organically, rather than allowing the world to grow stale and stagnant. This is its greatest strength, and is the primary reason followers of the series should read it.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the romance is so lackluster. The vast majority of the story is spent on the tension, both that of the action and the mystery of Mala’s powers. Mala and Angus express physical attraction early on, but that’s it until a good two-thirds of the way through when all of a sudden, they’re having sex. I never felt any sexual tension between them, nor believed it might be something more than a passing physical thing. In fact, their so-called romantic scenes are so truncated, even the epilogue that attempts to pull threads together feels incomplete and unsatisfying. It’s not helped by Mala’s inconsistent characterization (she seems to alternate from weak to flirtatious without a bat of an eyelash) or the fact that Angus has a damsel in distress weakness. I more easily believe that he wants to protect her in response to that than I do any genuine emotion.

This isn’t the strongest entry in the series by far, but considering the new elements that were introduced to the world building, like a necessary one. I just wish I could’ve cared about the romance more, or that the romance had been left out entirely.

Readability

8/10 – Always so compulsive to read

Hero

7/10 – Nurturing and likeable

Heroine

6/10 – Seems to alternate between strong and wishy-washy, lacks consistency

Entertainment value

6/10 – The action part of the plot worked well, but the romance was forced and unbelievable

World building

7/10 – It helps to have read previous books, but even then, it’s not always clear

TOTAL:

34/50

Monday, August 1, 2011

Flying Fish by Sedonia Guillone

TITLE: Flying Fish
AUTHOR: Sedonia Guillone
PUBLISHER: Loose Id
LENGTH: Novella (roughly 24k)
GENRE: Gay historical erotic romance
COST: $4.99

Daisuke has returned to the land where his wife was murdered in cold blood to seek revenge. What he finds instead is the most beautiful man he’s ever seen bathing in a hot stream. A chance encounter leaves them both yearning for more, though each recognizes it can never be. But when Daisuke can’t get Genji out of his head, a night at the theater changes both of their lives forever…

My TBR pile is big enough that I still have books on it from before I started my review blog. Though this one isn’t quite that old, I was more than a little relieved to clear it off the list, if only because it was such a sweet story to read.

Set in Japan in 1684, it tells the story of Daisuke, a ronin (a masterless samurai), who has returned to the Kai province to seek revenge for the murder of his wife five years earlier. He happens upon Genji bathing in a hot stream, who is the most beautiful man he’s ever seen. They indulge in an afternoon of passion, but because of Daisuke’s mission and Genji’s lack of freedom (he’s owned by the theater owner and is forced to service samurais after each performance), know that it can’t be repeated. Daisuke learns that the man who killed his wife is now dead, replaced by his son, but is warned off on taking his vengeance now. The son is a good man, he is told, and the province is peaceful and prosperous again. Frustrated and not knowing what to do, Daisuke blames part of it on Genji and the fact that he can’t get Genji out of his head. He decides to go see Genji perform, in hopes that will sate the desires that are currently controlling him.

I know very little about Japanese culture, nor do I really care for yaoi, but I was drawn into buying this for its stunning cover and the romantic blurb. I can’t compare it to what seem to be its inspirations, so I have to judge it on its own merits. For all its eroticism, there’s a sweetness that pervades the story almost from the start. Genji, especially, seems delicate but displays stunning strength at the most unexpected times, while Daisuke is the opposite, seemingly invincible but possessing such a soft, broken core I sometimes wonder how he managed to survive long enough to even meet Genji. There’s an almost instant connection between the two, one that translates into the romanticism of their first encounter and makes their inevitable separation a little painful. All of this is wrapped up in highly stylized, overtly romantic prose. There is never any doubt this is meant to be seen through rose-colored glasses. If a reader is willing to give oneself over to that, it can be a quite satisfying read. I was certainly able to do so for a good part of the story, even as I recognized the strings being pulled to manipulate me into feeling the way I did.

That’s a side effect of the stylization for me. It probably wouldn’t bother a lot of readers who are more eager for this kind of storytelling. Not to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did, but I never forgot I was reading, and I never felt immersed in the passion of what they were feeling. I went through the bulk of the story in a constant state of “Awwwww,” very much like I was watching a performance rather than engaging in it.

Because of this pervasive romanticism to the story, solutions seem easily come by. I can’t say that I bought the ending, even if I was glad for the men’s sake that it happened that way. I just needed something more to push what was an enjoyable read into a wonderful one, a depth rather than the skim over the surface that it felt like I got.

Readability

8/10 – Highly, highly romanticized prose, clean but if it isn’t your thing will bog you down

Hero #1

7/10 – Oddly vulnerable in spite of his power, though his turnaround at the end seemed too easy

Hero #2

7/10 – Sweet without being saccharine though I found myself wanting more from his POV to help explain his past

Entertainment value

7/10 – It sometimes felt stylized due to its prose, but there’s such a pervasive sweetness between the heroes that it’s hard to be turned off by it

World building

7/10 – I know next to nothing about Japanese culture, and while it didn’t leap off the page, it certainly explained enough to serve the story

TOTAL:

36/50